Vampire burials are a popular news topic. An archaeological dig will uncover corpses buried in an unusual way—and media outlets will rush to call them “vampires.” Brick in its mouth? Vampire. Nailed to the grave? Vampire. Sickle over its neck? Vampire. The problem with these breathless conclusions is obvious:
Abundant media coverage has followed these discoveries, which has fueled public fascination, but often frustrated archaeologists, because many of the stories are based on unpublished findings that have yet to be thoroughly scrutinized.
Vampires are Slavic revenants (the word is derived from the Serbian vampir). These media outlets are actually reporting on “deviant burials”—a term probably more familiar to archaeologists and anthropologists than the general public.
Despite the name, they’re not as naughty as you might think: “The term ‘deviant’ is used to describe burials that deviate from the normative burial rites of a given society, at a given point in time.”
Vampires are often associated with deviant burials because “The most well-known type of deviant burial,” Richard Sugg, author of Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires (2011) says, “is probably the classic staking of a vampiric corpse, usually associated with continental Europe.” Naturally, “vampire” makes better clickbait.
The Science Times, a website priding itself on “providing a complete informational and content package for science enthusiasts in the web” and “credible news & info., in-depth reference material about diverse subjects” isn’t immune from this temptation, as Cristina Limpiada’s article about an “unusual skeleton” found in a Romanian cemetery attests.
Limpiada detailed the excavation of 49 graves at an unnamed location in Transylvania used between the 17th and 19th century, by a team lead by Coco James, a Master of Biological Anthropology student at Australian National University (ANU). One particular grave captured her attention:
Coco James mentioned that the grave number 42 carries lots of items than others on the burial site. Things like brass buttons, coins, a leather liner, and coins are present on the grave with enormous coins in his hands. Usually, the other graves have only two very small coins, while grave number 42 has five present coins.
Additionally, grave number 42 shows a good health without any indicators of a disease on its body when it’s still alive. However, a trauma was seen which is similar to other graves and he was only at the predicted age of 27 to 35. Also, grave number 42 is thought to be a wealthy person with a good community standing.
Aside from the number of items, the alignment of the skeleton unearthed showed the different pattern. “He was buried almost upside down, rolled onto his side and tilting downwards,” Coco said.
This skeleton was not only “an evidence in the history of Szekely people”, but something more sinister: “Due to the grave site, the remains are suspected as the vampire myth.” Poor grammar aside, there are many other problems with Limpiada’s article.
For starters, Coco James did not lead the excavation. Limpiada’s source for that information, a Phys.org article by Aaron Walker, mentions James is a Master of Biological Anthropology student from ANU taking part in the excavation, quotes James and mentions a “team” behind the dig—not that she lead it.
A Sydney Morning Herald article also clarifies Coco James is “one of the students travelling to New Orleans to present [their findings] to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists” and “Students from Texas State University, University of Indianapolis and Mississippi University were also involved with the excavation, which was organised by Archaeotek.”
Using this article as a lead, I contacted ArchaeoTek (Archaeological Techniques and Research Center) directly for further information. I received the following response from the organisation’s director and founder, Andre Gonciar:
The project in question is part of a larger research program, the Lost Churches Project in and around the city of Odorheiu Secuiesc, Harghita County (Transylvania), Romania. That particular part of the larger project was completed last summer. This summer, we are proceeding with our core project, the excavation of the Lost Church of Valeni (https://www.archaeotek-archaeology.org/medieval-cemetery-funerary-excavation ).
One small correction should be added to the [Sydney Morning Herald] article in question. A.N.U. is not involved in any way with our projects, even though we did have 2 ANU students last summer (out of about 120 participants) in the field. The entire research program, both its bioarchaeology and osteology branches, is run and directed by ArchaeoTek – Canada, in collaboration with the Haaz Rezso Muzeum in Odorheiu Secuiesc. Furthermore, the entire program is funded by ArchaeoTek exclusively.
So how did Coco James and ANU gain such a prominent role in media coverage of the story? Gonciar surmised:
As far as I can tell, the public “history” of that article began with https://phys.org/news/2017-02-romanian-skeleton-puzzles-archaeologists.html , provided by the Australian National University (as cited at the bottom of the original article). Most likely, the initial write up was an ANU newsletter along the lines “here’s what our students did this summer” or a student school presentation (most likely a requirement for academic credit and/or a follow up for any financial aid – if any – she received to travel to our site). The Sydney Morning Herald picked it up on phys.org and ran with it.
Although Walker’s article does not cite a specific ANU source, a February 14, 2017 article from ANU’s “Newsroom” was the earliest reference to the excavation I could find on the ANU website using “Coco James” and “Romania” as search terms.
James’ quotes from the ANU story match Walker’s article, highlights her part in the dig and the ANU article appears in the “Campus & Community” section; I’d say Gonciar’s “here’s what our students did this summer” theory is correct.
As to Limpiada’s “an evidence in the history of Szekely people” comment about the skeleton, which she expands on:
The graves were actually from Hungary and migrated to Transylvania in the 11th or 12th Century. The reason why the Szekely people don’t really consider themselves as Hungarian or either Romanian.
There’s nothing in Limpiada’s sources about moving graves. Evidentially, she provided a garbled version of what her source says about migrations of Székely people to the region:
Coco says the project will have a significant impact on the local Székely people, who live in a small series of Romanian villages but retain a Hungarian culture.
“They were originally located in Hungary and migrated to Transylvania in the 11th or 12th century. They have held onto their heritage and their land in the Székelyföld since then,” Coco says.
“They don’t really consider themselves Hungarian or Romanian.
“There are no written histories for the Szekely people of this area, just oral histories. Only now is there a project to develop a written history, so being able to do this work and provide physical evidence is incredibly important.
“It gives the people that are going to write these histories lot of fuel to use.”
What about James’ confusion regarding the skeleton’s appearance? Limpiada’s source for that aspect of the story, a CityNews.com.au article, elaborates:
“He (grave 42) had a lot more items in the grave than any other burial on the site. Coins, brass buttons, ceramic buttons, and a leather liner,” Coco says.
“The skeleton had five enormous coins in its hands, whereas most of the burials had one or maybe two very small coins.
“He was very healthy, he had no indicators of disease. He had some trauma, he was around 27-35 which is quite consistent with a lot of the other skeletons on the site.
“Most likely it was a wealthy individual with good standing in his community.”
While the number of items made the grave interesting, it was the alignment of the skeleton that had the team of archaeologists scratching their heads.
“He was buried almost upside down, rolled onto his side and tilting downwards.
An “individual with good standing” is a perfectly self-evident explanation for the extra coins and other artefacts found in his grave, so that isn’t too unusual—and nothing new. It’s not even unique to the area. Look at the photo used to illustrate Limpiada’s article:
If you skimmed past the photo without reading its caption, you would’ve assumed it was a picture of grave 42’s occupant. It’s not:
(Photo : Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Staff) DORDRECHT, NETHERLANDS – NOVEMBER 24: A recreation of the skeleton discovered in Grave No. 43 in the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis together with the numerous gold artefacts dating to the 4560-4450 BC the oldest processed gold in the world, as displayed in the ‘Humanity’s First Gold’ exhibition at Dordrechts Museum on November 24, 2016 in Dordrecht, Netherlands.
The skeleton isn’t even from Romania; Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis is in Bulgaria. The items found at that site were also much more elaborate:
The grave comprised of gold earrings, circular appliques used for the ornaments of a head-dress, two gold bracelets, Spondylus bracelet with gold plates, gold-ring bracelets, clothes trimmed with gold and carnelian beads and circular, a gold penis sheath, a clay bowl, a bow with its gold fittings, spears, fint and copper points, stone axe-sceptre and fint blades.
That means the only thing truly unusual about Limpiada’s “vampire” is the skeleton’s alignment in the grave. But far from proof of a vampire burial, James suggests something more like a comedy of errors in Limpiada’s source:
“In the end we decided the most likely situation is that during the burial they lost their grip on the coffin and it rolled and fell in upside down, they looked down and said, ‘You know what, no one’s ever going to know’,” she says.
Limpiada’s other source, Walker’s article, cites the same explanation. Limpiada even alluded to James’ theory in her own article: “Their team has come up in a similar situation predicted that during the burial the people might lose grip on the coffin that results for it to rolled out and fell.”
Yet, despite referencing this explanation, Limpiada concludes: “While the confusing grave number 42 is still questionable for the common people thought it will give a clue to the vampire myth in Romania.” Thought by who? Neither of Limpiada’s sources mention vampires. Neither does the ANU article.
I asked Gonciar what he thought about Limpiada’s vampire comments. He said: “The Science Times presentation has added the fantasy factor in order to boost ratings – no vampires were directly involved.” He also clarified the actual purpose of the dig and provided a summary of their findings:
The Lost Churches program aims at understanding how one of the major crisis in Europe (i.e. Reformation, Ottoman invasion of Europe, collapse of Central and Eastern European States,Wars of Religion, Siege of Vienna, Counter-Reformation and political reconstruction of Central-Eastern kingdoms) impacts the populations living through them, especially those in liminal frontier environments, such as Transylvania. We are interested in discovering how these crises affected the real people, at the physiological level. To what degree the political, social, economical, military, and religious crises impacted local customs, nutrition patterns, social integration, violence, etc? One very interesting phenomenon is that at the end of this period, towards the end of the 18th century, a great number of churches disappeared in the area very quickly. To add to this, the mechanics of their disappearance were such that these churches were removed from local collective memory, hence “Lost Chrurches” [sic].
Each Lost Church has an element of deviance, both internal and external, which is by far the most interesting aspect of our research. Since (almost) all our churches were removed from the anthropic use about 200-250 years ago, their cemeteries were rather well preserved, which give us an evolution of the local population since the foundation of theses churches in the 12-14th century.
Ironically, if Limpiada did a little digging of her own, she might’ve uncovered a genuine legend associated with the site, as Gonciar reveals:
The project Coco James was on was very intriguing. We located the site last year from local legends. It is said that a Szekeler cavalry troop was destroyed in battle there, while they were performing a heroic act (we have quite a few variants on the act). After the battle was over, they were buried there, in a commemorative mass grave/mound… so says the legend. Our field and geophysical surveys indicated there were burials there and we were extremely excited to excavate a (potentially) battle mass grave. However, it turned out that it has absolutely nothing to do with warfare, but more likely with social constructs. The cemetery was a very intriguing one. Even though it belonged to a quite wealthy community, none of the surrounding villages have any knowledge, historical or actual, of it. Furthermore, the burials were the richest, in terms of artifacts, we ever excavated in the region from the time frame. The burial practices indicate they were Christians, but not only there are no church records whatsoever (and the Church always gets its burial tax… hence records), we couldn’t find a church or even a chapel associated with the cemetery… and they are buried in a mound – it is unclear at the moment if the latter was man-made or natural. So there is a bit of mystery present.
So how did Limpiada get the story so wrong? I’m keen to find out. Yesterday, I tracked her down online. She agreed to answering questions I had about her article. I’ve just got to compose them first.
Moving forward, if you’re interested in hearing James discuss her work on the dig in person, she’s scheduled to give a presentation about it called “The Confusing Case of Grave 42: A Bioarchaeological Analysis” at the 86th Annual Meeting for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists on April 22, 2017 in New Orleans. I am seeking her out for commentary on Limpiada’s vampire angle, too.
- Brick in its mouth: “‘Vampire’ Discovered in Mass Grave,” New Scientist, March 4, 2009, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126985-200-vampire-discovered-in-mass-grave/. archive.is link: http://archive.is/Cu2wx.
- Nailed to the grave: Telegraph Reporters, “Buried with a Stake Through Its Heart: The Medieval ‘Vampire’ Burial,” The Telegraph (London), November 1, 2012, accessed February 28, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/9647904/Buried-with-a-stake-through-a-heart-the-medieval-vampire-burial.html. archive.is link: http://archive.is/3Qw0h.
- Sickle over its neck: Jamie Seidel, “Study of ‘Vampire’ Burials in Poland Provide New Insight on How Suspicious Communities Dealt with Disease,” News.com.au, December 2, 2014, accessed February 28, 2017, http://www.news.com.au/technology/science/archaeology/study-of-vampire-burials-in-poland-provide-new-insight-on-how-suspicious-communities-dealt-with-disease/news-story/dd865e95d01ebcd2fc46e8ddfecbac32. archive.is link: http://archive.is/sbkUT.
- “Abundant media coverage has followed these discoveries”: James Close, “Archaeology of the Undead,” The Atlantic, May 18, 2016, accessed February 28, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/05/zombie-archaeology/483195/. archive.is link: http://archive.is/bPfhf.
- “The term ‘deviant’ is used to describe burials”: Jesslyn E. Hodgson, “‘Deviant’ Burials in Archaeology,” Anthropology Publications, paper 58 (2013): 1, accessed February 24, 2017, http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/anthropub/58/.
- “The most well-known type of deviant burial”: Richard Sugg, “The Hidden History of Deviant Burials,” History Today, February 21, 2017, accessed February 28, 2017, http://www.historytoday.com/richard-sugg/hidden-history-deviant-burials. archive.is link: http://archive.is/tV8E0.
- “providing a complete informational and content package for science enthusiasts”: “About Us,” The Science Times, n.d. accessed February 24, 2017, http://www.sciencetimes.com/about-us. archive.is link: http://archive.is/J6UEx.
- “credible news & info.”: Ibid.
- Cristina Limpiada’s article about an “unusual skeleton” found in a Romanian cemetery: Cristina Limpiada, “Weird Looking Romanian Skeleton Unearthed in Transylvania Suspected as the ‘Vampire’ Myth,” The Science Times, February 18, 2017, accessed February 23, 2017, http://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/8957/20170218/weird-looking-romanian-skeleton-unearthed-in-transylvania-suspected-as-the-vampire-myth.htm. archive.is link: http://archive.is/2Zfpt.
- “Coco James mentioned that the grave number 42 carries lots of items than others on the burial site”: Ibid.
- “an evidence in the history of Szekely people”: Ibid.
- “Due to the grave site”: Ibid.
- a Phys.org article by Aaron Walker: Aaron Walker, “Romanian Skeleton Puzzles Archaeologists,” Phys.org, February 14, 2017, accessed February 23, 2017, https://phys.org/news/2017-02-romanian-skeleton-puzzles-archaeologists.html. archive.is link: http://archive.is/OdJY2.
- a Sydney Morning Herald article: Claudia Long, “ANU Archaeology Student Helps Document History of Szekely People in Romania,” Sydney Morning Herald, February 18, 2017, accessed February 23, 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/anu-archaeology-students-help-document-history-of-szekely-people-in-romania-20170214-gucun8.html. archive.is link: http://archive.is/W4AjC.
- “The project in question is part of a larger research program”: Andre Gonciar, email message to the author, February 23, 2017.
- a prominent role in media coverage of the story: Coco James and ANU are also mentioned in Martha Henrique, “Transylvania: Mystery Body Unearthed Buried Face Down Holding Five Huge Coins,” International Business Times, February 15, 2017, updated February 16, 2017, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/transylvania-mystery-body-unearthed-buried-face-down-holding-five-huge-coins-1606685. archive.is link: http://archive.is/5tq5b. ArchaeoTek was not mentioned at all.
- “As far as I can tell”: Andre Gonciar, email message to the author, February 24, 2017.
- a February 14, 2017 article from their “newsroom”: “Romanian Skeleton Puzzles Archaeologists,” Australian National University, February 14, 2017, accessed February 23, 2017, http://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/romanian-skeleton-puzzles-archaeologists. archive.is link: http://archive.is/naxwc. The only other reference to the dig on the site was in ANU’s College of Arts & Social Sciences’ “News” section: “Romanian Skeleton Puzzles Archaeologists,” Australian National University, February 14, 2017, accessed February 27, 2017, http://cass.anu.edu.au/news/20170216/romanian-skeleton-puzzles-archaeologists. archive.is link: http://archive.is/1oMxp.
- “The graves were actually from Hungary and migrated to Transylvania”: Limpiada, “Weird Looking Romanian Skeleton Unearthed in Transylvania Suspected as the ‘Vampire’ Myth.”
- “Coco says the project will have a significant impact on the local Székely people”: CityNews, “Coco Digs Up an Unusual and ‘Confusing’ Grave Site,” CityNews.com.au, February 14, 2017, accessed February 23, 2017, http://citynews.com.au/2017/coco-digs-unusual-confusing-grave-site/, archive.is link: http://archive.is/rx9k2. Walker’s article features the same quotes, which have clearly been lifted from the February 14, 2017 ANU article.
- “He (grave 42) had a lot more items in the grave than any other burial on the site”: Ibid.
- “(Photo : Dean Mouhtaropoulos / Staff) DORDRECHT, NETHERLANDS – NOVEMBER 24”: Limpiada, “Weird Looking Romanian Skeleton Unearthed in Transylvania Suspected as the ‘Vampire’ Myth.” I have sought an actual photo of the skeleton. On February 28, I emailed Andre Gonciar requesting a photo. As this article went to press, I have not received a reply.
- Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis is in Bulgaria: Ivan Dikov, “Bulgaria’s Varna to Exhibit World’s Oldest Gold Treasure in Dordrecht, Nethelands, October 28, 2016 – April 28, 2017,” Archaeology in Bulgaria, October 12, 2016, accessed February 23, 2017, http://archaeologyinbulgaria.com/2016/10/12/bulgarias-varna-to-exhibit-worlds-oldest-gold-treasure-in-dordrecht-nethelands-october-28-2016-april-28-2017/. archive.is link: http://archive.is/Qkp9T.
- “The grave comprised of gold earrings”: “Humanity’s First Gold Exhibition at Dordrechts Museum,” Editorial #: 626092266, Getty Images, , accessed March 1, 2017, http://www.gettyimages.com.au/license/626092266. archive.is link: http://archive.is/Q7pRi.
- “In the end we decided the most likely situation”: CityNews, “Coco Digs Up an Unusual and ‘Confusing’ Grave Site.”
- “Their team has come up in a similar situation”: Limpiada, “Weird Looking Romanian Skeleton Unearthed in Transylvania Suspected as the ‘Vampire’ Myth.”
- “While the confusing grave number 42 is still questionable”: Ibid.
- “The Science Times presentation has added the fantasy factor”: Gonciar, email message to the author, February 24, 2017.
- “The Lost Churches program aims at understanding how one of the major crisis in Europe”: Ibid.
- “The project Coco James was on was very intriguing”: Ibid.
- Preliminary program of the 86th Annual Meeting for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (April 19–22, 2017): http://physanth.org/documents/73/AAPA_Meeting_Program_2017_PRELIMINARY_2_1_17.pdf [backup]. James will be presenting “The Confusing Case of Grave 42: A Bioarchaeological Analysis” with K. Flor-Stagnato, E. Cantor, A. J. Osterholtz, A. Gonciar, and Z. Nyárádi. It is the 35th presentation during Session 70: “Human Skeletal Biology: Population History and Beyond.”
If you’re interested in attending the 86th Annual Meeting for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, register here: https://ssl4.westserver.net/birenheide/AAPA/2017AM/registration/index.php. Note that prices jack up after March 13.
If you’d like more information about ArchaeoTek’s Romanian excavation or any of its other projects, visit: https://www.archaeotek-archaeology.org/.